The Best Maps Help You Get Lost

The Best Maps Help You Get Lost

Loads of video games have maps in them. You might think they're there to stop you getting lost, but no. They have got a much more important role than that.

There's a scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers where Faramir and his ranger buddies are hiding in a cave, and a map is shown (above). Fingers (actually those of director Peter Jackson) run all over it as the current strategic situation of the entire trilogy is laid out. We see the major cities and locations, we see the movement of armies, we get an idea not of what a few stars are up to, but how the world itself is changing.

In the commentary for the movie, Jackson describes how he only added the scene in later when he realised something was missing from the film, and how important such a seemingly trivial matter ended up being to the audience's relation to the entire trilogy. He knew, as more video game developers are learning, that maps are the gateways to a fictional world.

The Best Maps Help You Get Lost

Sure, stuff like "lore" and cutscenes and narration play a part, but when it comes down to it, there's a great irony at play: if a creator wants someone to really get lost in their world, they're going to need to draw them a map.

You might think a map is just a map. A thing with some locations stamped on it that you use to get from one place to another. And that's true! They are, but a good map doesn't just show towns and castles, it provides scale, which in turn provides meaning to movement and distance. It's one thing being told about a long walk. It's another knowing just how long it was.

Why do you think the very introduction sequence to Game of Thrones begins with a look at the map of the world? Because it provides context to everything that's about to happen. When you see how far Tyrion has travelled to get to Daenrys, or how just how far Winterfell really is from King's Landing, or how crazy it is that Stannis ended up at The Wall, you get an understanding of task and accomplishment that no amount of 'people walking' footage can account for.

But a map can also play a narrative role. Nothing piques curiosity more than the unexplored quarters of a map. They suggest mystery, excitement, danger. There's nothing out there that will excite a gamer more, or get them moving in a game faster, than giving them a map with empty/incomplete areas and saying "have at it".

Look at video games that have embraced the importance of maps, and how much they benefit from it as a result. And I'm not talking about games that only include one so you know how to get from A to Z.

The Best Maps Help You Get Lost

BioWare do a fantastic job; both Mass Effect's galactic map and Dragon Age's war table put a whole universe/world at your fingertips. Bethesda's work with Elder Scrolls also excels, with Skyrim's map in particular acting not just as a map, but as a tool for travel and a journal of tasks just begging to be uncovered and completed. And don't get me started on classic JRPG overworlds like Final Fantasy VII (or even Bravely Default's), which aren't just maps, they turn the world itself into a plaything.

But it's not just RPGs that are made better with good maps. Even the humble platformer is made more complete with one; Super Mario World may superficially be a collection of levels, just like its predecessors, but by linking everything together with an overworld map (a tradition that's continued through to Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U), your efforts are made to feel more like a journey, rather than a gated progression through isolated, individual stages.

So the next time you hit the "M" button to bring up a map, and take it for granted, or consider it just another simple tool (like an inventory, or a compass), maybe stop for a second and think about what else it's doing.


Comments

    I like the fact that Bloodborne has no map. The world is small enough that you can get to know it like the back of your hand after a bit of time spent walking around and the fact that fast travel involves substantial loading times. I did appreciate the map in the guide though, if only for the chalice dungeon navigation.

      The fact that bloodborne had no maps made everything more mysterious.

      Nothing like being on top of the old orphanage and looking down onto the grand cathedral or being in the cathedral district and looking down on the walkway where the cleric beast was. Really puts everything in perspective and ultimately joins things in your mind better than any map could. If the game did have a map, i think it would ruin the "Oh WOW" moment when you put two and two together.

      I remember the old days when games had cloth maps in their boxes. Games like Ultima 7 ~ 8 and Quest for Glory 2. I don't think i could ever navigate Shapier without a map, i think it was a smart use of copy protection back in the day.

      Last edited 21/05/15 4:51 pm

    I love gaming Maps, in fact i have roughly 100 gaming maps :D, these have been collected from YEARS of gaming and one day when i own my own house im going to make a wall of maps, covering every RPG/MMO and Game i have played that came with a Cloth, paper, cardboard map.

    I dont care for statues, stickers or post cards, but if a game has a physical map included im sold.

    My best and worst experience with a map was in the first main story segment of the Witcher 2. The map was drawn like an old medieval map with "Here be dragons" type stuff. It was gorgeous to look at and really suited the world but it was completely and utterly useless at trying to find exactly where anything was. I think I wandered around that forest for a solid two hours trying to find one specific nest of creatures to kill.

      Damn Nekker nests!!!!! took me 2 hours to work out what they looked like and where they were.

    Couldn't agree more. It's silly how exciting it is when you're watching the Game of Thrones opening titles and the map visits a new city!

    Books still need to have maps that fold out beyond the normal pages so you can easily refer to them halfway through a chapter

    I do love printed game maps though. One day I'll get a few of them framed and hung up on the wall in my man cave

    I've always thought the Game of Thrones intro was very smart about showing you where everything is. The books themselves open with maps.

    Special call out to the Metroid Prime maps, they were incredibly useful, being in 3D. Often would guide you to explore a certain area of a room a little more.

      Was about to make an obligatory mention of Metroid Prime :P

      Did you ever have that thing happen where your perspective suddenly inverted and your brain was interpreting the map kind of inside out when rotating it? Would trip me out every time.

        It was a long time ago and I don't recall that ever happening!

    Interesting there is a picture of Skyrims map. That was terrible and totally immersion breaking. Was one of the first things modded out.

      It would have been better if the in game map was actually a map rather than a teleport chart made from a zoomed out world THE STILL HAD THE CLOUDS COVERING 3/4s OF THE MAP.

    This brought me back to my first favourite book - Treasure Island. Started out with Robert Louis Stevenson simply drawing a fantasy map with his son to tell him tales of pirates and he ended up writing a book instead - To the day one of the more successful books and was written based on a map which was drawn by hand from the imagination...

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